Newmarket’s planners are recommending “approval in principle” for the new Clock Tower development in the heart of the historic downtown.  

Councillors will be getting a presentation at 9.30am on Monday (28 February) from the owners who will be setting out their stall, explaining how their boutique hotel will work in practice.

The Clock Tower “minor variance” application was approved by the Committee of Adjustment on 26 January 2022 although most people would consider the proposal to be anything other than minor.

I am disappointed to lose the long distance view of the Clock Tower from Park Avenue (from beyond the library) but what is more important – the long distance view of the Clock Tower from one angle or getting the building repurposed and back into use asap? We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The imperative is to get the old Clock Tower back into business as a functioning building, breathing new life into the historic downtown.

Parking

Of course, this won’t be easy or straightforward. The Committee of Adjustment has concerns about the adequacy of the parking provisions, particularly overnight parking. I can easily imagine the library spaces being poached by people going to functions at the new hotel. 

Unusually, the Town’s engineers have not commented on parking issues, deferring to the planners who, in turn, have contracted the work to an outside planner. I am told the in-house planners are overstretched and busy with other planning applications. But passing the buck like this sometimes happens when the in-house planners are asked to do something they don’t want to do.

Clearly, the Town is fast-tracking this development.

But after a decade in the doldrums, why not?

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier today is very big news in Canada.  

The 2016 census showed 1,359,655 people (3.8%) out of Canada's then population of 35,151,728 claimed Ukrainian ethnic/cultural origin. (The 2021 census tables for ethnography and immigration will be released later this year.)

622,445 (1.7%) claimed Russian ethnic origin.

Here in Newmarket 2,950 people (3.5%) claimed Ukrainian ethnic origin and 2,840 (3.3%) Russian out of the then population of 84,224.

Almost 7% of the Town's population say their origins are in either Ukraine or Russia so what is happening over there is of huge significance.

Ukraine is a big country with 44 million people.

Complete madness

The invasion is, of course, complete madness and is totally unjustified. President Putin's assertion that Russia is acting in self-defense is risible. For over three months Russia has been deploying the military along its borders with Ukraine, waiting for the order to strike. 

And then, a few days ago, Putin recognised the “independence” of two republics in eastern Ukraine and sent in “peacekeeping” forces. 

The former U.S. President, the ludicrous Donald Trump, says this was an act of genius.

Now, unbelievably, we are witnessing a full-scale land war in Europe.

There is, of course, no question of a military response by the West. But sanctions that really bite will make a huge difference; damaging the Russian economy, separating Putin’s inner circle from their foreign bank accounts and giving encouragement to Putin's domestic opposition.

Canada has condemned the Russian invasion. I am pretty sure the sanctions that follow will be the toughest on record.

They must be.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Update at 1.25pm: Canada expands sanctions

Update on 25 February 2022: From the Guardian: How we defeat Putin and the Petrostate autocrats

The inquiry into the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in April 2020 begins today in Halifax. 

It will be harrowing.

I naively believed the worst mass murder in Canadian history would be the catalyst for a complete ban on handguns in Canada. But that is not going to happen – even though a clear majority of Canadians want one.

Executed at school

Instead, handgun violence is becoming normalised. A 14 year old blows the brains out of a fellow student at a Scarborough school, described by homicide investigators as an “execution”, and the news is a one day wonder.

Gunfire in Newmarket’s Main Street at 7.30pm on a Friday night gets no comment from our Liberal MP,  Tony Van Bynen, nor from our PC MPP, Christine Elliott.

What’s going on here? We know the Conservatives will never ban handguns but what about the other parties?

The Liberals dance around the subject, fearing it is almost too hot to handle. First, they say they’ll give municipalities the power to ban handguns on their patch. Then they have a re-think and, at the last election, they promise to

“Set aside a minimum of $1 billion to support provinces or territories who implement a ban on handguns across their jurisdiction, to keep our cities and communities safe.”

Most gun-related homicides involve a handgun

The Liberals can’t ignore the issue completely (which would be their clear preference) because of the inconvenient fact that the majority of gun-related homicides involve a handgun

But how is this “handgun ban” going to work in practice?

I wrote to my MP, Tony Van Bynen, on 4 January 2022 after reading his taxpayer-funded flyer of December 2021 in which he said the Government would:

“Work with the provinces and territories that want to ban handguns”

I wanted to know if this required Federal legislation. And I asked him to explain the process by which the Federal Government will work with the Provinces and Territories that want to ban handguns.

What form does it take? Is the Minister of Public Safety reaching out to the Provinces and Territories or does he expect them to approach him?

I received a reply later that same day. I was hugely impressed. This had never happened before.

No-one has a clue

Unfortunately, Van Bynen couldn’t shed any light on the process but promised to pass my concerns on to the Minister. He would let me know as soon as he hears anything. 

I am still waiting. No-one seems to have a clue about how the policy will work in practice – or, if they do, they are keeping it to themselves. And we are just over three months away from a provincial election where gun violence could be an issue. How is the $1 billion to be divided up and allocated to the provinces and territories (if any) that choose to ban handguns?

Personally, I can’t help feeling we are being failed by our politicians.

What will it take to bring in a handgun ban?

Another Portapique?

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Graphic shows Facebook post by Tony Van Bynen "honouring the victims" of the Nova Scotia massacre.

Below: Making it up as they go along. The first draft of the policy - giving cities the power to restrict and even ban handguns. That's morphed into something very different. 

Getting information from public bodies can cost a small fortune. 

Southlake Hospital, for example, wants $1,179 before they will let me see their Master Plan and the agendas and minutes of the Committee that considered it. (See below) Personally, I think this kind of material should be deposited in the local library, redacted if necessary.

As a general rule, openness and transparency lead to better public administration. The case is made by an opinion piece in this morning’s Globe and Mail by Farah Qaiser and Rachel Maxwell from “Evidence for Democracy”. They want to know if the evidence behind policy decisions can be found by the lay public.

Closed Sessions

There are often good reasons for keeping information under wraps but these should be spelled out. It’s too easy for municipalities to keep their discussions on important policy issues confidential when they should be debated in open session. Too often, they retreat into closed session to get advice from the lawyers and then use Solicitor-Client privilege to shield them from scrutiny. A favourite ruse is to say that the release of information would reveal their negotiating tactics – and that disclosure would give the game away.

Information can also be withheld to cover-up bad, ill-judged or embarrassing decisions. But experience tells me sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Dining out on our dollar

It cost me $75 to find out that our MP, Tony Van Bynen, when Mayor of Newmarket, charged his butter tarts and snacks to the taxpayers. The retired banker was dining out on our dollar. Importantly, the information didn't say who he was dining with nor the purpose of the breakfast or lunch "meeting". Apparently there were "privacy considerations". That triggered another FoI request and it came back with lots of blank spaces.

Bob Forrest’s plans to redevelop the Clock Tower here in Newmarket could easily have blighted our historic downtown had it not been for the cascade of Freedom of Information requests, the answers to which demanded a fundamental reappraisal of the project. 

But even now, some information is still withheld. Bob Forrest claimed he had a “tacit agreement” with the Town in 2013 which would have allowed his development to go ahead. Who knows? The Town refuses to release the June 2013 closed session records of the Committee of the Whole. I was told the minutes are to be kept under lock and key until their release 

"would no longer have any impact"

I shall try again in 2023 and see if the passage of a decade has made a difference. After all, Bob Forrest is now history and the Clock Tower has a new owner. 

Glenway

It was only because of a FoI request that I found out that the Town had considered buying the Glenway land in 2008. This was kept secret during the community’s long battle with the developer, Marianneville, who wanted – and succeeded – in building on the former golf course.

If people had known then that the Town had turned down an offer to buy the land it would have unleashed a whole new dynamic. The land, now worth hundreds of millions, was bought by Marianneville for under $10M in 2010.

Institutional Memory

Municipalities have, by their very nature, an institutional memory. 

And political parties do as well. They remember what their political opponents did or didn’t do in the past. But here in Ontario the political parties don’t organise at municipal level and all candidates for council run as independents. Their triumphs and tragedies are soon forgotten.

Slow burning fuse

Freedom of Information requests often have a slow burning fuse. They can take years to bear fruit.

Even when I was an MP in the UK – and could table Parliamentary Questions on any subject under the sun – I occasionally found that Freedom of Information was the way to go. 

Exposing tax dodgers

The Conservative donor and multi-millionaire tax dodger, Michael Ashcroft, was “elevated” to the House of Lords in 2000 after promising the then Conservative leader, William Hague, that he would bring his tax affairs on-shore and pay UK taxes on his worldwide income. Previously, he had been non-domiciled, meaning that he would pay UK tax only on income earned in the UK or brought into the UK from abroad. 

In 2007 I asked the Cabinet Office the simple question:

“What form did Michael Ashcroft’s undertaking take and to whom was the undertaking given?”

After getting nowhere, I appealed to the Information Commissioner who decided in March 2010 the information must be made available to me. Ashcroft then made a statement confessing he was non-domiciled. He wasn’t paying UK tax on his worldwide income as he had promised to do to get into the House of Lords a decade earlier.

The controversy led to amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which was going through Parliament at the time. It became the law of the land for members of the Commons and Lords to be UK domiciled for tax purposes.

Peers now have a legal obligation to report their world-wide income to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. This, of course, also applies to Lord Black of Crossharbour (aka Conrad Black) even though he was in a US prison when the legislation was passed. 

But more about Conrad Black later…

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Example 1: Southlake 

The future of Southlake hospital was one of the big stories in the local press last year. The Chief Executive, Arden Krystal, supported by colleagues, made the case for a new acute hospital on a greenfield site outside Newmarket with the present site on Davis Drive earmarked for walk-in care. 

I wanted to find out more about this huge policy decision – the pros and cons and the rationale. 

When did the proposal first emerge? What prompted it? In my head I had a million other questions.

Almost seven months ago I put in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for sight of the Master Plan for the proposed new hospital and was startled to be told last week that this would cost me $713 – and that I would have to wait another six months for the material. 

I don’t complain about having to wait over a year for this information. We are living through a pandemic and when I lodged my FoI last August I stressed that the battle against Covid 19 was the hospital’s top priority and my FoI request should only be answered when the staff had the time and opportunity to do so without taking them away from more important matters.

I also wanted sight of the agendas and minutes of the Southlake Comnmittee that considered the Master Plan. I am told this is going to cost $466 and, again, won’t be available for six months.

I am left wondering why this material can’t be deposited in the local library, redacted if necessary. $1,179 is a lot of money to fork out.

Example 2: Metrolinx

On 12 August 2021, the regional transportation agency, Metrolinx, told East Gwillimbury Council that an all-day two-way 15 minute GO Train service would be extended north from Aurora to Bradford. Councillors were told that Green Lane would benefit and that this was possible

“thanks to further study and optimisation of service plans”.

It has been obvious to me for years that a fast train service through Newmarket (which I support) would, inevitably, mean grade separations in Town and these cost a small fortune.

So I asked Metrolinx for sight of the records that allowed them to make the 15 minute commitment not once but on multiple occasions since last August. They tell me they can’t meet the statutory deadline for replying and need another eight weeks to consider my request because they have to search through a large volume of records.  

Example 3: The valuation of Block 120 at Glenway West. 

Last year, the developer Marianneville donated land to the Town and received in return a Donation Receipt for $14,290,000. This receipt can be used by Marianneville to offset tax payable to the Canada Revenue Agency.

The issue was raised by a member of the public, Kathryn Morton, who took a deputation to the Town’s Committee of the Whole on 31 January 2022.

The Town’s Finance Director, Mike Mayes, told the Committee:

“We issued a tax receipt – actually it is a donation receipt. It can be used for tax purposes. The cost (to the Town) was just basically printing off a piece of paper.”

The Mayor, John Taylor, assured the deputant:

“We did get a land appraisal.”

The Town has a Donations Policy and land gifted to it must be independently valued by an expert. 

But since the gift of Block 120 cannot in any sense be regarded as confidential (as both parties have publicised the donation) I have asked for sight of the Valuation Report. I want to know how 16 acres of land zoned as Open Space with two large stormwater ponds and containing a Significant Water Recharge Area can be worth over $14M. I am left wondering how many other stormwater ponds and their adjacent lands, if any, have been gifted to the Town by developers in exchange for a Donation Receipt. 

The Town tells me to expect a decision on 7 March 2022 on whether or not they will release the valuer’s report.

If I were an MP I would be voting on Monday night for the continuation of the Emergencies Act – largely for the reasons set out by the Prime Minister who opened the debate last Thursday (17 February). 

Trudeau said there was no alternative to invoking the Emergencies Act and I think he's right.

But, when the dust settles, a promised inquiry will look into that.

Police had no plan

The whole world now knows that the self-styled Freedom Convoy, which had occupied downtown Ottawa for over three weeks, wasn't going anywhere.

And the Ottawa police didn’t have a plan to move them.

The interim Conservative leader, Candice Bergen, told the Commons on Thursday:

“We believe the trucks should move or be moved…”

But she didn’t tell us how that would happen. The truckers and their camp-followers were dug in and prepared to stay for the long haul. 

Maybe she would just give in to all their demands - insofar as we know what they are.

The NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, got it right when he told MPs:

"It's no secret that the goal of this convoy, posted brazenly on their website, reiterated as recently as earlier this week in a press conference, was to overthrow a democratically elected Government. That was their goal."

Meet the bigots

Yet in its leader column last week (No, Canada), the patronising Economist had a go at Justin Trudeau who, we are told:

“has handled vaccine protests atrociously”

It criticizes the Prime Minister for refusing to meet the protesters:

“…seizing on the fact that a few of the protesters appear to be bigots, he attempted to put all of them outside the boundaries of reasonable debate…” 

But why should the Prime Minister meet a bunch of conspiracy theorists whose stated objective is to remove him from office? Clearly, a meeting between Trudeau and the unmasked and unvaccinated leaders of the Freedom Convoy would have resolved absolutely nothing. The Economist goes on to say:

“The police already have ample powers to quell disorder…”

Over-reach

But do they? This is the issue that is preoccupying the House of Commons in its four-day debate on the Emergencies Act. Many MPs are claiming the Government has over-reached.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association warns that triggering the Emergencies Act is a step too far

It seems to me the simple answer is the correct one. The protest got completely out of hand when the police failed to do what they are paid to do. They had to deal with tiny numbers of people with big trucks who were determined to park them wherever they liked. And the police stood by and watched.

Ineffective

The former Ottawa police chief, the hopelessly ineffective Peter Sloly, said the protest and occupation was “unforeseeable” which is nonsense. Why were there no contingency plans? How on earth was it possible for Sloly to say there “might not be a policing solution” to the protests and expect to be taken seriously?

When they are not fighting or keeping the peace somewhere, the military spend their time war gaming. I always figured the police would be doing something similar – how they would deal with civil disturbances, demonstrations and protests.

Apparently not. Instead, the Ottawa police were caught flat-footed.

"Controlled Area"

In the UK legislation in 2011 introduced a “controlled area” around Parliament where certain activities were prohibited such as “unauthorised use of amplified noise equipment” and “erecting or using tents or structures for facilitating sleeping”. And so on. It seems quite inconceivable to me that the Metropolitan Police would allow truckers – or lorry drivers as they would say over there – to gum up Parliament Square with their monster trucks and rigs.

In a free society people have the right to protest – but this right is circumscribed. People don’t have the right, for example, to incite violence to advance their aims. And if they break the law they take the consequences on the chin.

Beware: Barry Manilow

Canada is finding its own way. Other countries have different approaches. Protestors camped outside the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington were blasted with the hit songs of Barry Manilow to encourage them to disperse.

It wouldn't work here.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

PS: Over the years I've been on lots of demonstrations. In fact I was determined to join one in central Moscow in 2019 but my wife insisted I should stay out of it. Sound advice. Protesters were thronging the streets, complaining that anti-Putin candidates for the city council were being removed from the ballot paper by the authorities for allegedly breaking election rules. A ring of police officers surrounded a big hotel a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. When I asked a police officer what was going on he growled: “State Security” and said no more. I nodded.